Frances Wills Thorpe

Frances was one of two African American female officers in the Navy during World War II. She grew up in Philadelphia, but eventually moved to Spanish Harlem in New York City with her mother.

In her memoirs, she recalled getting little or no guidance about college.

When I learned that without high Regents grades in both geometry and algebra, I would have no chance at all of beings considered for college, I was devastated.  I do not recall feeling, at the time, that I had been overlooked by the school system.  Later, when I realized that there were people called guidance counselors in all the schools and that there must have been one or two in George Washington (high school), especially since it was among the more highly rated schools, I was angry.  Whoever had the job had not cared at all that I was there.  It must have been true — what people in the African American community always said — that no effort was made to ‘guide’ us because it was assumed that we would go to trade school or get a job — any job — on leaving high school.  It had never occurred to me that I would not go to college.  I wanted to be a journalist and heard that the University of Pennsylvania had an excellent school of journalism.

She ended up taking remedial courses and qualified to attend Hunter College in Manhattan.

This photograph of Frances Wills being sworn into the Navy comes from the National Archives.

“Do For Yourself”

Even after her years with the Peace Corps, Jean Byrd Stewart still kept volunteering and giving. She shaded her stories. Wrote a book.

There was a to-do in Washington, DC, after the women had been in 50 years. I had to write of my involvement at the Navy. All of us that spoke at that particular affair, that was supposed to have been put together in a book form. Some of  them sent it back typed up and some didn’t.  I still have mine.  You should see the paper.  Even when I went to Africa, that was something.  I saved that.  I can add that to my book.  All those things blend together and come to something decent.

It wasn’t until late 2006 that Jean finally decided to stop volunteering.

I’ve done for others. As someone said, “Do for yourself.”   And that’s not being selfish because I’ve given a lot of years to other people.

This is a copy of a commendation Jean received from the state of New Jersey. It comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

Peace Corps

In 1982, Jean Byrd Stewart volunteered yet again – this time with the Peace Corps. She was assigned to travel to the Philippines.

I went in as an agriculturist.  Agriculturist, that’s what was needed. My father had a place and with eight children, 200 feet deep on both sides and you learned to plant and this and take care of it and keep the ground nourished and keep the weeds out. So I went in as an agriculturist.  I have to work with the, around city hall, that was number one.  Then work with the farmers, upgrading them, so that they could raise a good crop of rice and this and that and the other thing. Green grass and shrubbery to hold the dirt whenever it rained. That was all a part of it too.

They had a day care center and I had to help with the children. There was some that were malnourished. We had to give them a one bone meal to keep them alive and going.  One lady was going to have a baby. She wanted me to deliver her baby because I had been in health.  You were here, you were there and the other place.  They had a day care center.  I could hardly pass there, they were waving to me.  I could hardly stop, because I had to go to the office and work.  You were needed in so many places.  The school needed someone to help raise money. Being from America, they knew I could touch and money would pop up.  Money for tables, money for chairs, for the children to do their homework.  The places they needed you and wanted you to work was endless.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

“You’re Needed in the Government”

Jean Byrd Stewart found that her service to the United States didn’t end after World War II. When New Jersey began its urban renewal in the latter part of the 20th century, she was asked to represent the state in health matters. Then she volunteered with Title One, helping to improve opportunities for children at two economically disadvantaged Catholic schools. Next thing she knew, she was asked to volunteer with Service for America.

A lady who worked for the government said, “You’re needed in the government.” I was sent to, up to Hannibel, Missouri.  It was interested working with senior citizens.  Then there were some handicapped, disabled children there. And that was a learning experience. Being in the Navy, that’s an insignia that follows you through it seems.

When she returned home, her mother was sick, so Jean took care of her while attending college to help supplement her degree.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

Post-War Romance

Jean Byrd began working after the war, returning to the job she had before entering into service. When her brother returned home from his stint in the Navy, he brought along a friend. Bill Stewart.

You just don’t up and get familiar with a person.  You have to learn something about them. If they’re nice, or you can be congenial, or get along with them.  So I’m minding my business, going to work.  I hate to say it, but they served me a drink that I just thought was light soda or something or other, because I was going to work.  I wasn’t going to be home and talk with them.  I was going to work. And they said, “You can’t go to work because we put something in that, and you just have to take the day off and go on.”  Well, I didn’t like that.  Because every day counted, right? Yeah, that’s what they did to me. So I didn’t go to work that day.  I got to learn something more about him.

After he had been over a couple of times, Bill suggested that he and Jean might want to think about getting married near his birthday in June. It was May.

I said to myself, “This is moving in a hurry.”  Well I had a sister who was supposed to get married in September.  As time when on, I don’t even know how long it was, but come to find out he appeared to be nice and I didn’t know anything that was against him (laughs).  I said, “Well, we’ll talk to Lina and Johnny.”  I said, “It would be rough on my mother to have a wedding for them and have a wedding for us at another time too.  What if we get together and have a double wedding?”  And so it ended up, that we had a double wedding and got married.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

The Pharmacist’s Mate

Jean Byrd Stewart went to boot camp at Hunter College. Just 3 of her class of 1000 women were African American.

After training, Jean was assigned to become a Pharmacist’s Mate, just like half of her class. But she had hoped to do radio work.

I said, “I don’t see any singal, any insignia of radio.”  I said, “I’m going ask can I change.” So when I went to ask, who did they send me to but Harriet Pickens. She said, “Well, you know the hospital corps is the area where the Navy women are needed.” She said, “It’s a good field and what you want to do is nice and you do have a background for it.  But I think if maybe you had a higher mark, you might have made it, but because of the need for hospital corps.”  I don’t know whether I asked her or not, but do you know I had a three-point-nine — now how much higher can you get?  But I didn’t say anything, because I knew we were needed and I just left it. And thanked her, and went and that was it.

Jean worked with patients on the hospital ward. Some of the men’s injuries were devastating. She treated men with jaundice. One young man had TB of the spine. Another man had a brain injury and needed to stay quiet because his skull hadn’t healed yet.

He had a friend next door to where he was stationed and he knew it and wanted to see him.  At least he was happy he had come this far and wanted to say hello to his friend.  And they say, “No, we won’t let you go.”  They had to be careful of whoever took him. So while I was duty, I learned about him and him wanting.  I couldn’t give him an answer because I wasn’t in the position. But one day he wasn’t there. And what had he done?  He had gone next door to visit his friend.  He was so happy he knew what to do.  When he finished he came back.  He knew where he was, where he had come from and where he had to go.  And he came back and he was happy and contented.  And what could you do?  You didn’t want to smile and yet you were happy for him because — that was something.  That was something.

Jean left the Navy in May of 1946.

This is a copy of Jean’s graduation from the Hospital Corps school in Chicago, Illinois. It comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

“You’re Not an Individual”

Though there was resistance to allowing African American women to serve in the Navy, Jean Byrd Stewart says she didn’t encounter any racism once she was in the military. She ended up being stationed in the Chicago area, but remembers one time traveling to St. Louis. St. Louis was a segregated community, and while she could find a restroom for white women, she couldn’t find one for African American women.

I said to the gentleman in charge, “I am going back upstairs where I saw ladies rooms. And I’m going to use that.  If you hear any commotion, you know I’m in trouble.  Send a Shore Patrol because I might need help.” Because there is no ladies room here. And I did.  I went in and you know, you have to wait until there’s an open on.  And I did, I went into the ladies room, came out, when I came out, I sat down.  I took off my hat.  I fixed my hair, checked my make-up, stood up to leave, and of course they were around talking and saying.  And you say, “Goodbye.”  Or “I’ll see you later.”  And you get up and you leave.  Nothing happened.  It shouldn’t have, but you never know.

You know what they told us when we went in?  “You’re not an individual. Remember your home training and all the things you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to act.  You belong to a group.  You’re not an individual.  You belong to a group and remember your manners.”  And that was it.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.

Deciding to Enlist

Jean Byrd was working as the war broke out. But she wanted to join the military service. Initially, only the Army was accepting African American women, and only into segregated units in the Women’s Army Corps. That didn’t interest Jean.

A lot of the women were going into the Army. I said, I want to be different, I want to be something nice.

One day in late 1944, her family was visited by a family friend, Dean William Pickens of Morgan College in Baltimore, Jean’s father’s alma mater. Dean Pickens had a daughter who was a little bit older than Jean.

His daughter Harriet, when she came out of school, they were asking for women to go into the Navy. And I saw it in the paper, where she went up to Smith to train for officer’s training school. And I said, “So the Navy is for me.”

Truman said, “We would like for the ladies to volunteer their services to relieve a man and I think it would help us win the war sooner.”  I said, “I’ll go!”  I’m sitting there working for a defense company making apparatus to go into airplanes.

Jean enlisted in the WAVES and was sent to boot camp in May of 1945.

This photograph comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.


Even though Jean Byrd grew up during the Depression, she still dreamed big.

 You know how you wish for things?  My mother had a gentleman who would take her, my aunt and another lady, he would take them shopping because he had a car. They would go and shop, and they would pay him and I thought that was so nice. So one Saturday, I said, “You know, I would like to buy some property.” Well, I was working then and I had a few dollars.  I said, “I don’t have much, but I’d like find out how much land costs, how much you need” and this and that and the other thing.  I had a nice black dress and black pocketbook and this that and the other.  I said, “I’m going to get dressed and ask Mr.” I forget his name now “to take me out to this place so I can find out something about land.”  Didn’t have a dime.  A few dollars.  I think my first account I put two dollars in. Well, that’s what I got paid.  Two dollars a week. That was way back.  ’40 — I forget the year. ’30, ’38 I came out of high school. Anyway, this is what I was going to do.  I was going to act like I had some money and I was a lady who had some prestige.

This photo comes from the Jean Byrd Stewart collection.

The Importance of Education

Education was important to Jean Byrd’s family, especially as African Americans living in the Northeast.

You had to if you wanted to move in life and be something. Even the girls were going to school, learning a trade.  Something to do.  Because the men didn’t make the kind of money that the white men made, or the family.  Maybe the husband made enough money that the wife didn’t have to work. And she could do community work or belong to the women’s club. Because my aunt worked for a lady like that.  Her husband was the head of a bank.  And she was active in the community, head of the woman’s club. So I said, “That was an angle I can go.” You watched the different ones. Up the street lived lawyers, there was a councilman and there was so much to draw on that you could easily pick what you think you would like to do.

Jean dreamed about going to Brown College after high school, but it was a men’s school at the time. Instead, she went to Patterson State College. Part of the reason was economic: the school was nearby her home, so she could carpool with a friend who lived around the corner.

This is a copy of Jean Byrd’s high school diploma. It comes from the collection of Jean Byrd Stewart.